The demands on the modern-day religious woman pull her in 30 different directions at all times. We move on to the next task without finishing the first
Human nature craves stimulation, whether from social interaction or from learning somethingb new. Technology hijacks our brains and redirects those strengths into weaknesses.
In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr writes that a paradox of the Internet is that it grabs your attention only to scatter it. What happens when you’re online? Something catches your eye, so you click on it, but you don’t even get through the paragraph before the next thing grabs your attention, and you click on that. Then, look, there’s that thing you saw yesterday, and now it’s on sale! All this clicking actually changes your brain chemistry. Every click, every text releases a shot of dopamine, the feel-good hormone, so you’re constantly reaching for your phone.
The instant payoff of texting also habituates us to constant stimulation, which makes it difficult to handle periods of withdrawal. A two-year-old quieted with a phone becomes a 14-year-old who can’t sit for more than ten minutes without the distraction of a DVD, who grows into an adult with no tolerance for dealing with the frustrations of daily life. We need stillness —for our psychological health, and for developing an authentic religious life. Mindless rote behavior is one of the primary obstacles to true avodas Hashem, and constant attachment to our devices means we are physically present but totally absent in spirit. We see this everywhere: in our homes, schools, shuls, even in the street. We live under the illusion that we are always busy and productive, because technology always gives us something to “do.” But if we actually look at our daily output, all that scrolling and checking and clicking doesn’t yield much to be proud of. Essayist Tim Kreider writes in “Lazy: A Manifesto,” from his book We Learn Nothing:
The busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness. Obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day… I know that after spending an entire day answering emails, watching movies, keeping myself busy and distracted, as soon as I lie down to sleep all the niggling quotidian worries and Big Picture questions I’ve successfully kept at bay come crowding to my brain like monsters swarming out of the closet…
Unlike Mr. Kreider, I know the answers to my Big Picture questions. But it’s easier for me to surf the fascinating waters of the Internet than to address them.
Avigail, age 35
Okay, so here’s the thing: as I’m typing this I can’t believe how embarrassing it is, but it’s the truth, so I’m going to say it anyway.
I text and drive.
I know, I know. I’ve heard the story about the woman who killed a young father of three when she ran through a yellow light turning red while texting. I read Matt Richtel’s incredible, powerful, terrifying book A Deadly Wandering, about a Mormon teen who killed two men while texting
behind the wheel, I know. I mean, my kids walk home from school and are completely at the mercy of passing drivers, and the thought that one of them might be looking at his phone instead of the road is crazy scary to me.
So why on earth can’t I stop doing it? It’s so weird — I know in my head what I’m doing is dangerous and irresponsible, but when push comes to shove and my phone dings, I always give a quick glance without thinking. Or if I’m at a red light, I figure I’ll just quickly text and drop the phone when the light turns green. But I know that for the first few nanoseconds after you finish a text, when you step on the gas, there’s no way your attention is 100 percent fully where it’s supposed to be. (I don’t know why I’m saying you, I’m just trying to distract myself from the fact that this is me.)
I’ve tried just putting my phone in the glove compartment or in the back seat or wherever. But I usually need it for Waze, so it ends up very responsibly latched on to its little dashboard holder… until it’s in my hand for just a sec… Should I buy an old-fashioned GPS because I’m such a child that I can’t control myself?
I recently read an interesting study on mindfulness. It suggested for breaking a bad habit to just be aware of what’s going on in your body and mind while you’re engaged in it. So that night, after I dropped my son off at shul, when a buzz notified me of an incoming text (did I mention what an inexcusably horrible example I’m setting for my children? I know), I just froze, while a voice in my head urgently whispered, “Be mindful. Notice how you feel, what you’re thinking.”
This is what I noticed: My stomach was clenched and my heart was actually beating faster. I was very aware of the phone within arm’s reach on the seat next to me. Rationally I knew that there was basically zero chance it was a truly important message, and yet the urge to check it — and then inevitably shoot back an answer — was ridiculously strong. I kept the phone on the seat, staying continuously aware of my anxiety.
Then came the next test: a red light. I eased to a stop and glanced over at the phone. It was face down, I couldn’t see who the text was from. Be mindful. My breath was shallow. I started to feel slightly insane. I just watched myself feel the crazy pull to pick up my phone. I gripped the
steering wheel with both hands until the light turned green. The feeling passed. I got home without checking it.
Victory? Probably not. Still, it was a very enlightening experiment.
Ilana, age 26
Stick-to-itiveness is good if it helps you follow through on a task to the very end. But that’s not what happens on a smartphone — because with that, you’re never finished. But I stick to it anyway, as if there’s something to accomplish if I just scroll around a bit more.
The demands on the modern-day religious woman pull her in 30 different directions at all times. We move to the next task without finishing the first because there’s just too much going on all at once. That’s where my phone comes in, with all its apps for organization, shopping, recipes, online banking… It’s like a miracle. It’s okay to be always on the run, because I can do my banking, research, and shopping from anywhere.
But I’m also sacrificing something important in the process.
The convenience is great. I’m thankful for online banking and one-click Amazon and Waze and recipe groups who help me figure out what to make for dinner. We live in a complicated world, and these apps simplify things. The truth is, whether it’s good or not, this is how the world functions now. I don’t think it can be undone, and I don’t know if it should be.
But with all the convenience, there’s a danger to always clicking, tapping, swiping — that we’re totally disconnected from the real world around us, the people around us, and our real selves.
We need to acknowledge that danger and think about how to address it. We can’t just mindlessly download every convenient app and begin the rush without thinking it through.
I’m so deep in it already. I wish someone had brought this to my attention a long time ago…
Shlomo, age 30
I left my phone at home on purpose. Yeah, you read that right. I went out with my family to Target last night, and I left my phone at home. Can’t remember last time I did that.
Why did I do it? Because it needed to be charged — but that’s not the real reason. Really, I wanted to prove I could make it one hour without my phone. No calls, texts, WhatsApps. No aimlessly looking down at my phone when my family is talking to me. No fighting the urge to look at it the entire time I’m driving.
I felt like I was missing something important — but I also felt so free. I even took the long route home. And I didn’t go straight to my phone when I walked into the house — I put the kids to bed first. I guess it is possible to go without it for a while.
I wish I could disconnect more often. But realistically it’s not happening. I don’t have the self-discipline to use my phone only for work. I’m just not there. Maybe I don’t want it badly enough. It’s amazing how busy I am when I have it. I’m constantly doing something; I need to just text or call one more person. Standing there in Target, with my family, it finally sank in that everything I do on the phone really could wait.
Should try this more often.
It’s hard to be honest about our attachment to our phones. Look around:
- Do others pull out their phones automatically when waiting in line?
- Do you see drivers at red lights looking at their phones?
- Can you discern the moment when looking at your phone goes from purposeful intent to mindless scrolling?
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 718)
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